Peter has just heard what he does not want to hear. Jesus has been going around teaching hard truths—that he will endure suffering, rejection, and ultimately be killed. Imagine for a moment quitting your profession, following some leader’s movement, and giving your life for that cause, only to have that person, that cause, tell you that it will all end in death—and not just death, but murder. Now imagine to be told after all of THAT, your leader has some strange idea that somehow he, and this movement, will rise again after death.
It’s just too much for Peter, who –we remember– has given up his career in the fishing industry. He doesn’t want to see anyone suffer, doesn’t want to see his friend and Messiah suffer, and truth be told, doesn’t much want to suffer himself. One must wonder if Peter thought that their movement was going to be all peaks, with no valleys.
To hear Jesus talking about all this suffering and death provokes Peter so much that he takes Jesus aside privately and rebukes him. “Rebuke” is a strong word. Basically, Peter tells Jesus to quit talking that way in front of the newcomers. It is all too unexpected. They will lose members if he continues spouting such nonsense.
It’s an interesting exchange and an interesting story that leads us into philosophical questions about what life is, for what purpose we live, and how human beings can relinquish their lives for all sorts of lesser things, and lesser causes.
But before we get to that—before we criticize Peter for his rebuke of Jesus—let’s consider the ways in which we try to evade truth, particularly hard truths.
Understand that Jesus and Peter have a very different understanding of what truth is, what truth does and can do, and how a Messiah who shares his (or her) truth with the world will be received.
Likely, Jesus had known prophets who had been condemned for truth telling. Remember, he began his ministry with after hearing about John the Baptizer’s arrest. A bit before this passage in Mark’s gospel, we learn that Herod had John beheaded and his head put on a platter. You can read the gruesome details in Mark, Chapter 6, but suffice it to say, that John was not known to flatter-the-powers-that-be concerning their marriages. Yet, curiously, before he put the Baptizer to death, Herod did enjoy listening to John while John was living in behind bars.
So—Jesus has seen firsthand what happens to prophets who tell the truth. And so have you. Witness those who share their perspective about all manner of social ills: the causes of poverty, the results of disastrous public policy, the treatment of the immigrant or undocumented, the murder of black and brown people, and the shady practices of those who would rather make a buck then to live within any kind of healthy parameter or government regulation.
Barbara Kingsolver tells this story. [Bill Moyers once interviewed Robert Penn Warren] who was at that time America’s Poet Laureate. Mr. Moyers asked Mr. Warren, “Sir, as one of our leading writers and philosophers, can you tell me how we can resolve the terrible crises that surround us: decaying cities, terrible health care, terrible crises in education and housing, and so much poverty?”
Mr. Warren leaned forward and said, “Well, Bill, for a beginning, I think it would be good if we would stop lying to one another.”
What happens when you share the truth, big or small? How are you received? How do you receive the truth?
My kids are learning about “opinion” and accepting another’s perspective. Personally, I knew that I was in trouble when my son looks at me and says, ‘Mommy, that is your opinion” with the stress on YOUR. So, I want to be clear that Jesus wasn’t sharing just his opinion on the topic; he had seen what could factually happen to prophets and truth-tellers. Peter is convinced that this won’t happen to his friend, which shows you not just a difference of opinion, but an evasion of the truth.
How do you evade truth? Sometimes we pray that we would listen as well as God. Well, maybe not as well as God, but better than we currently do. Listening is a skill that is taught in some few professions, but even when taught, many of us are poor listeners. To listen well, we need to be free from distraction, our own mind-clutter and agendas, able to attend to what the person is saying as well as what the person is NOT saying, and also be to hear and receive things that we might not like or prefer to hear.
Kingsolver remarks, “This is it. This is all. We so desperately avoid looking at the truth square on, much less saying it aloud, because it’s uncomfortable for us to go about our days in relative luxury while people next door to us are dying for lack of shelter. Civic pride can lose its shine when reality is allowed a place at the table. I find it unspeakably hard to walk past someone whose life would be improved, noticeably, by the amount of spare change I could probably find on the floor of my car. But we manage, those of us who are lucky enough, to walk on by.”
Truth can be tough to swallow, so we may feel empathetic for the biblical Peter. Imagine hearing truth from your doctor, a friend who cares deeply about you, or your child. Imagine hearing a hard truth from your spouse, your employer, or a leader in your community. How easily can you “hear” this truth? How ready are you to listen to their understanding or wisdom without getting defensive, without refute or rebuke, and without planning your rebuttal while they are still trying to state their perspective?
The writer, Glennon Doyle Melton, has written, “When people express opinions that differ from yours, take it as a chance to grow. Seek to understand over being understood. Be curious, not defensive. The only way to disarm another human being is by listening.”
I’ve always loved the idea that you can often disarm a foe by just listening to him or her. In any case, Jesus doesn’t exactly disarm Peter…
After Jesus hear Peter’s rebuke, he issues one of his own, calling Peter “Satan” in the process. I have to admit that calling someone the Devil is probably not the best way to endear someone to your argument, but who am I to correct our Savior?
Jesus tries to explain to his disciples that being a part of this kind of God movement will involve carrying a cross—not simply the burdens and hardships of being human, but the difficulties that arise when we live in such a way that the status quo is disrupted for God’s sake. “Losing one’s life” for God’s sake is not the same as losing one’s life because we made ourselves doormats for another person’s narcissistic behavior, or made ourselves co-dependent and entrapped by our inability to set realistic boundaries, or lost our lives in some kind of addiction or quest for security and safety.
We likely understand what Jesus means when he says that we can gain the whole world but forfeit or lose our lives in the process because we know what it is like to lose our lives for so many other things and people, than for sake of the Divine.
Nowadays, we can gain the whole world with a Mastercard, a Visa, and credit to spare until the bill comes due. So many people who are attracted to the subculture of minimalism and anti-consumerism arrived there because they learned too late that one could work 40 hours or more for trinkets, toys, and the all-American “more and better” but one would pay a high cost for doing so: lost years of debt and lost years of life. So, some of these folks opted out of that kind of rat race and gave up mortgages, a stable but fraught paycheck, and the toys and trinkets in order to live more deeply and authentically.
One can romanticize some of this kind of life change, but surely, we can understand that it is possible to live our lives in unexamined ways. Surely, we can see how we may avoid hard truths that might actually and ultimately free us from losing our heads on someone else’s platter. In other words, feeling like we are living far from the kind of life God intends.
As for Jesus’s words about “this adulterous and sinful generation,” I attribute them more to the gospel writer Mark than to Jesus, but perhaps I am also avoiding an uncomfortable truth. A truth which is that we, human beings, are likely to give our hearts away to lesser causes and lesser things because we find it difficult to love a God who loves us unconditionally and without restraint. For it is in loving this God that we listen, learn, and hear all kinds of things that bubble to the surface: creation crying, the cries of our neighbors and the stranger, and the very cries within our own souls.
And as someone once said, “Once you hear, you know, and once you know, then you cannot pretend otherwise.”
So, though we may say that we yearn to have the eyes and ears of God, I suspect that the truth is a bit more nuanced and complicated than even we want to admit.
Perhaps the prayer for this day is that we will be better listeners to the hard truths around and within us.
Perhaps the prayer for this week is that we will be more be more gentle in our rebuke or refutation of others.
And if we are tempted to call someone a “Son of Satan” this week, we might just leave the name-calling to Jesus himself.
 Barbara Kingsolver, “Household words,” in Small Wonder: Essays (HarperCollins 2002), 198-203.